Tiny Houses: 12 questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge

The Towhee, a tiny house on wheels, against a blue sky with clouds.

The Towhee, photo by Bungalow to Go, used with permission

In January, Kevin and I attended the open house of Bungalow To Go‘s tiny house in Bodega Bay, California. At 168 sf, including the loft, the Towhee (based on the Lusby of Tumbleweed Houses) fits on a standard trailer and epitomizes the charm and appeal of tiny homes. It was small, yes, but thoughtfully laid out with clean lines, beautiful materials, and a splendid attention to detail that just doesn’t happen in full-sized houses.

The more I think about it, the more I think Tumbleweed and other tiny house companies sell a lifestyle more than they do actual houses. It’s the promise of a simpler life with less stuff, a smaller footprint on the planet, having to spend less time working to pay a mortgage, and escaping the whole rat race the American dream has become. In love? I am.

But there are tradeoffs, of course. All of my decisions are made in the spirit of compromise; nothing is ever uncomplicatedly good or bad in my world. While this is definitely a problem when I go grocery shopping and can’t decide between the organic spinach in the plastic box or the loose leaf conventional spinach that can go in a reusable bag, I think it’s well worth considering the pros and cons before making the leap to tiny living. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself about when it comes to tiny houses, and just how tiny would be too tiny for my life.

(By the way, Kevin and I had the same reaction after touring the Towhee: it’s beautiful, but we’d be at the other’s throat after a week. And it would be my fault.)

  1. How much time do you spend at home? And how do you see home? If home is just your crash pad between work and life, you may not need a lot of space. If home is where you spend most of your time and do most of your living, you’ll probably need more. Left to my own devices, I’m a total shut-in. I need light, silence, and space in about that order.
  2. How well do you share space? If you’re single, do you anticipate living with a partner? I know from instinct and a totally disastrous dorm experience that I don’t want to share 150 sf with another human — even my favorite human.  I’m as territorial as your average cat, and need a room of my own with a door to close behind me.
  3. Are you prepared to spend more of your life outside? (And what’s the weather like where you intend to live?) One of the things about tiny homes is that more living takes place outside the house. My friend Emily dreams of an outdoor bathtub where she can relax and stare up at the stars on a regular basis. I know I don’t love being outdoors the way she does. I like it, but some days the great outdoors and Suburbanite Girl me just don’t get along well. Gusting winds, meet contact lenses. Living more of my life outdoors would be a big change for me.
  4. What are your hobbies? Some hobbies take up more space than others, and in a tiny house, that might be space you don’t have. How important is your hobby to your enjoyment of life? My two main hobbies are pottery and cooking. Cooking wouldn’t be much of a problem in a well-designed tiny house, but pottery would. I work outside at a studio right now, and am OK with that. But I wonder which dream I want more: my own little home studio, or a small house with no mortgage.
  5. What is your attitude about stuff? I’m an unapologetic sensory junkie, and as a potter, I make stuff that I hope can be both beautiful and useful. I don’t feel the need to possess everything I find beautiful, but I want texture, aesthetics, and sensory appeal to be a part of my life. I want to have room for at least a few items that are lovely without requiring them to also be truly useful: a turned burl bowl with a waving natural edge, a handful of whimsical cat figurines from my travels. I doubt I will ever be a minimalist.
  6. Is there anything you collect? Between the two of us, Kevin and I have thousands of books. The number has stabilized over the years and may even be diminishing slightly, but we know that more aggressive culling will be inevitable if we want to live in a smaller house.
  7. How long do you want to live in your tiny house? Tiny houses seem to be mostly for people who are fairly young, fairly agile, and fairly thin. Doors and entryways are narrow, lofts are accessible by ladders, bathrooms are tiny. It’s part of maximizing available space, but it makes it harder to think about retiring in one.
  8. What do you think your family will look like in the next five years? Again, many tiny house designs are not very child friendly and won’t accommodate extra family members. I’m not having kids, so it’s a moot point for me, but I realize that I’m probably a minority in this.
  9. Do you have pets? Do you plan to? I think my cat could be OK in a tiny house, if she managed not to be constantly underfoot. She doesn’t make much use of our current 1100sf space. Her daily routine is often limited to litter box, couch, and kitchen, which are all within maybe 20 feet of each other. But she’s a blind adult cat; an active kitten or dog could be harder to coexist with in a very small space.
  10. Have you lived in small spaces before (dorm room, studio apartment)?  What did you not like about it? I’ve lived in quite a few different small dorm rooms, and the one that made me most miserable was dark and shared with someone I hated. My favorite room was maybe 15′ by 10′ with huge sunny windows, a sink, and no roommate. I realized that what made me happy wasn’t more space so much as sunlight and privacy. And a cat, if possible.
  11. How often do you entertain or have guests? Can I be totally unsociable and say that I don’t mind the idea of not being able to have houseguests? Although there are a few people I would be genuinely happy to have over, for everyone else, it’s a matter of gritting my teeth and trying to play good hostess. I enjoy cooking for other people, but I almost never have more than four people over total. Nothing a tiny house couldn’t handle. One of the suggestions in the Tumbleweed book is that the money saved on a conventional house can go towards renting a venue for big occasions.
  12. What in your life would feel like a sacrifice to give up? This is really the crux of it, isn’t it? I’ve come to the conclusion that my life as it is right now — with a spouse, a cat, and a hobby that keeps getting bigger — is a little too big for a 150sf house.  It would be too much of a compromise, and too little has as many drawbacks as too big. But that’s not to say that a small house is out of the question. Kevin and I are currently in love with the Tumbleweed Whidbey, which at about 500sf, seems neither too small nor too big, but rather just right.

Would you make the tiny house leap? What holds you back?

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16 responses to this post.

  1. Well… I fear I am a bit of a space monger. I suppose by most standards my house is small… it’s 900 square feet with a full basement. But it only houses 1.5 people and 4 cats. I think I could live with less space if it were better laid out, but there are just some non-negotiables in my life. Like… a bathtub. I know most people just hop in a quick shower, but if I don’t get to soak for at least a hour a few times a week, I’m just grumpy beyond belief. Plus, I’ve gotta have space to do my yoga, and a big bed is essential… even with my king sized waterbed, there are plenty of nights when I’m battling the fe-lions for enough space to straighten my legs. Plus, since I “work” from home, I’m here all the time, and I’m pretty sure I’d go stir crazy in 150 square feet!

    Then there’s the whole issue of outdoor space. I’m not a big fan of ornamental lawns, but I really LOVE my garden, and the thought of not being able to get fresh veggies from my backyard makes me feel really sad. And then there’s the basement… which I consider to be fairly essential if you live anywhere that’s tornado prone.

    I know I am totally spoiled. But my utility bills are still under $100/month, and that includes paying a premium to get all of my electricity from wind power. Plus, I didn’t pay much more for my house (including the land) than the Towhee costs, and at the rate I’m goin’ I’ll have the mortgage paid off next year.

    So I dunno… I’m such a homebody that having a space that I feel comfortable in is pretty important to me. I think that location probably is key to much of this. I mean, most of the houses in my neighborhood are 750-1000 square feet and mine is one of the few with a basement. I guess small is a matter of perspective when it comes to houses.

    Hmmmm… I seem to have written a bunch without saying much. Sorry to ramble…

    Reply

    • Hi Cat!

      It sounds like you’ve achieved the Tumbleweed lifestyle without the tiny house part. Pretty awesome — I’m considering tiny at least in part because housing in California is so expensive that I’m not sure we could afford much more. You can’t even buy a shack for less than $100,000 in the Silicon Valley! Maybe moving is a part of the solution, too.

      I’m a bit of a space hog, too, though mostly what it comes down to is more personal space more than physical space. Things were rough at first when Kevin moved in because I love having my own space so much. It’s possible I could adjust to living with him in a tiny house, but I think I’m much more likely to drive myself crazy.

      Reply

  2. As another homebody and person who values her own space, I hear ya. My house has a half-finished basement known as manland. If the boy and I didn’t have our own corners to retreat to when needed it could get ugly.

    My current house is about as tiny as I want to go. At 740 sq ft, I sometimes long for an extra 1/2 bath at least and a dining room (or space enough for more that 3 people to sit at a table). This place has a lot of storage, which makes a huge difference. I guess if I were a minimalist I wouldn’t need storage tho.

    Reply

    • Hi Candi,

      I think I might quail at going too much smaller than 740sf, too. The Whidbey has quite a bit of loft space that I wasn’t counting! Our current condo has two bathrooms, so I don’t even have to share with Kevin…it does feel a bit extravagant, but I’m not complaining!

      I’ve started to realize that I do have a lot of things that I rarely (or never) use or enjoy, and just getting rid of that would make a huge difference in the amount of storage I need. Getting my possessions down to a quantity that would fit inside a tiny house would be hard, though.

      Reply

  3. You asked what holds us back, and for me it’s how much time I spend at home, and how I spend that time. Not having a full-time job means more time at home, even though I’m super busy with volunteering and events in the community. Because I’m out a lot, I need my home to be comfortable because it’s where I come to unwind. On weekends my partner and I entertain a lot, because he loves playing boardgames and has a huge collection. So the kitchen and dining room are always going to have to be relatively big rooms for us. And I’m totally with you on light. I need lots of light. It’s good for my mood, it’s good for the cats and their near endless need to sleep, and it makes the place more welcoming when guests come over. It also makes growing plants and food indoors way easier! I guess I’d be comfortable with 750 sq.ft., provided the room layout is smart and efficient.

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea!

      I’m home a lot, too, but I find that I spend most of my time at home in the living room or the kitchen. The bedrooms get completely ignored most days, and I realize that the purpose they serve (a place to sleep, a place to store stuff) means that they could be cut down a lot if I had less stuff. I am less flexible on the light. The two worst places I’ve lived in were very dark even in broad daylight and had a definite impact on my mood and energy levels. I really, really love my current place’s big south-facing windows. I think I may attempt to grow indoor tomatoes this year!

      Funny, shelters always tell you that two cats don’t take up much more space than one, but I think they’re lying. ;-)

      Reply

  4. Posted by Alex on 02/03/2012 at 09:45

    Great post, and good questions to ask yourselves before plunging in. My thing is that I work from home. I also live with my long-time girlfriend and our little Maltese dog.

    Right now we’re in an apartment and it works great. But sometimes, because I’d really like to be able to have the perfect environment to focus.. I want my own work space. So I guess it’d be cool if I had a tiny house out in the woods or something for that in addition to a smaller space than I’m in now for our home.

    I guess my dream space would be a 150-300 square foot cabin for sleeping/cooking/hanging out. And a 65 square feet or so cabin for writing/creating.

    Reply

    • Hi Alex,

      Great blog! It wasn’t on my radar before, but I’ll definitely be keeping up with you. I really like your idea of having separate functional/creative spaces, especially since one of my hobbies is so messy and space-consuming. Since my spouse is also creative, I wonder if we’d have to do some sort of time share on studio space? Could be interesting.

      I do like my current condo, but I’d really, really love to not have neighbors and to have the option of putting up solar panels and graywater recycling and all the other things my condo association would have a fit over.

      Reply

  5. Love this! You offer a great practical approach to thinking toward small and figuring out what’s feasible.

    My family lives in a house that pretty much embodies everything I hate about poorly constructed houses, and we have just over 200 square feet per person. I would be happy to go a little smaller, if the space was well designed and materials and construction was of good quality. Though we would still need a big shed for all our tools and equipment. D

    Reply

    • Hi Pepper!

      Thank you for your input. I think I’d be more eager to downsize if my current living space were uncomfortable and poorly laid out, but it’s not…it’s just a little more space than I’m willing to clean and way more space than I could afford in this area if I ever wanted to buy it. Kevin’s not totally on board with downsizing to much less than 1000sf, so that’s another hurdle in wanting a tiny house!

      The Towhee is gorgeous. I’m sure someone will come along and find it just the right fit.

      Reply

  6. […] 12 questions: Are you ready for a tiny house? Even people who live in tiny houses say they’re not for everyone. So if you’re wondering if one would suit you, here are “12 questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge.” […]

    Reply

  7. As always, you ask the right questions. I could never live in one of these styles of tiny houses. The loft/ladder kills the deal instantly. I’m not sure it’s good feng shui to sleep under an angled roof like that. I could live on my own in a studio or relatively small space and I’ve lived in plenty of one bedroom apartments with a partner. But these tiny houses are too tiny for me and not structured the right way…for me. I’m glad they work for some people as it can really help to relief part of the financial burden of modern life.

    Reply

    • Hi Sandra,

      I have reservations about the loft, too — if only because Brie wouldn’t be able to climb the ladder and join me when she wanted. And I guess I’d be in trouble if I ever got injured or was having a really bad back day! I do like the idea of tiny houses and financial freedom. I don’t want to miss out on my life because I’m too busy working to afford a house and all the other trappings of the so-called American dream.

      Reply

  8. Those are some very helpful factors to consider. I guess “tiny houses” are meant for people who doesn’t spend most of their time at home rather than those who enjoy relaxing at their houses. maybe one of the advantages of having a small house is that you won’t spend too much time in cleaning it. :)

    Reply

    • Yes, less cleaning is definitely a plus to a small house! I’ve always been tidier in places in which I had less space and less stuff. I think I might enjoy spending time in my house more than I dislike cleaning, though!

      Reply

  9. I am definitely thinking about making the move

    Reply

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